This is the second part of a two-part interview. In the first part we talked more about the author and for this part I focus more on his book Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War.
Howard Kurtz is the media reporter for The Washington Post. In Reality Show he looks at how network news has changed in recent years, partially due to the Internet, as well as exploring other related issues.
How did you find time to write Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War since your output is already phenomenal, between your Washington Post articles, hosting CNN’s Reliable Sources and other writings?
Sleep was an early casualty. So was any semblance of a social life. But now that the book is done, my schedule is back to being merely crazy rather than insane.
How did the logistics of this book work? You write like you’ve followed Brian Williams, for example, to New Orleans as he does a broadcast. Did you go with him or did you have he and the other anchors walk you through thinking process?
I was in New Orleans at the time. I was often in meetings, newsrooms and control rooms. At other times I pieced together what had happened through intensive reporting.
How did you get such access in the first place?
I told each of the networks that if they would let me spend time there and talk to the key people, I would produce a substantive narrative that would attempt to capture the essence of what they do.
Some critics, including Marvin Kalb in your own newspaper, questioned why you did not have more specific sourcing for your book, opting instead for what I call the Bob Woodward style where there are footnotes but not nearly enough to tell who told you what. Did you consider doing more direct sourcing? Do you think this is a fair criticism?
It’s a fair question. But I was quite diligent about this approach. If I wasn’t there, someone in the conversation had to have been there, and to have provided a verbatim account. If that person wasn’t sure of the exact words that were used, I paraphrased. And in many cases I double-, triple- and quadruple-checked with others who were there.
Since the first half of our interview there was an odd flap about anchor Brian Williams hosting Saturday Night Live. What did you make of the flap? Was this indicative of change in the media (i.e. part of a larger shift in the media) or was this more just about Brian being Brian (i.e. him trying to show his loose side as you talked about in the book)?
The book makes clear that Williams was so concerned about his image that he passed up the chance to host SNL last season. This time, he allowed himself to be talked into it by Jeff Zucker and Steve Capus, his two top bosses at NBC. My own view is that this was not some tarnishing of the anchor throne, that most people get that he was fooling around on Saturday night and back to the serious job on Monday evening. And he’s lucky to have done the last show before the writer’s strike.
I wanted you to elaborate on a paragraph on page 254 and whether you think it was fair for the media to caricature Katie Couric and whether she herself ever made that quote attributed to friends:
But she couldn’t stand the way the press invented a shorthand for you, a Velco label that you could never peel off. The joke among her friends was that Katie had decided what she wanted chiseled on her tombstone, 'Don’t Call Me Fucking Perky.'
Also, how much of the criticism of Katie came because of her gender?
Yes, she said it among friends as a joke, which is clear. But underlying the joke is a real resentment at the press over the way she is covered and, in her view, caricatured. I think Couric made a number of mistakes when she got to CBS and is paying the price. But there’s no question that she’s held to a different standard than male anchors, with all the focus on her hair, legs, wardrobe and social life. No one questioned Brian’s decision to go to Iraq, but when Katie went there was a debate about her being a single mother and whether it was some kind of stunt. That was unfair.
I get the impression that some sources were much more open with you than others. Brian Williams, for example, seems to have shared with you his thoughts on many developments while I get the impression Katie Couric gave you little, if any, with the book. Is that correct and, if so, what do you think the result of that is? Does it end up showing Williams in a better light than Couric or does she only have herself to blame for that?
I think the anchors have different approaches to the press, and that Couric is generally less accessible than the others. But in terms of Reality Show, I felt quite satisfied with what I got from people at all levels of ABC, NBC and CBS — one of the advantages of doing a book as opposed to being on a daily deadline.
I don’t watch TV news and you spell out many of the reasons why I don’t — the reporting is so often shallow or superficial, many of the stories are grabbed from the daily newspapers, etc. Instead I read the Washington Post and The New York Times each day and read other stories via the Internet. Do you think someone who gets the news this way is missing something by not watching TV?
Yes. First, the networks do sometimes break important stories, as ABC’s Brian Ross did with the Mark Foley scandal. Second, television is a visual medium that lets you see, for example, the pain in a woman’s face as she discusses her son serving in Iraq — so just surfing the Net or reading papers doesn’t necessarily provide the same level of storytelling. Finally, it helps to see how stories are framed for a mass audience, rather than being unplugged from what 25 million Americans are watching.
What was your media diet like while working on this book? What is your media diet like now that you’re done with the book? By media diet I mean what do you read daily, what do you watch TV, etc. For example, do you TiVo and then watch all of the major TV newscasts?
It’s not much different now than it was during the book-writing process, except that now I occasionally miss a newscast or two. I read a half-dozen newspapers in print form, a bunch of magazines, keep cable news on in the background and visit a seemingly endless number of Web sites and blogs. At 6:30 I switch back and forth between the CBS Evening News and World News (sometimes catching a 9 p.m. repeat of Charlie Gibson on a local cable news channel) and watch Nightly News at 7. If I’m out for the evening I may catch the newscasts online.
Lastly, there’s been a lot of talk about Jon Stewart and what the success of his show means. Some, for example, fret that some viewers may be getting their news only from his show while others cite a study showing that those viewers are more aware of the news than others. What do you think of Jon Stewart’s show? What do you think his success means? And how has the show influenced TV network news. You mention on page 400, for example, that the Daily Show’s practice of using quick cut editing to show someone — in this case Alberto Gonzales — repeatedly giving the same answer, “I don’t recall,” to numerous questions and then adding, “The Stewart style was now embedded in once-sober network newscasts.”
The Daily Show is not just funny but important in the way it uses videotape to illustrate the absurdity of politics and media coverage itself. The reason I devote a chapter to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (who believe that no one would get their jokes unless they follow the news) is precisely because the evening newscasts are ripping a page from the Comedy Central playbook — not in doing fake news but in copying some of the editing techniques. It’s no accident that Brian Williams is an occasional Stewart guest, or that NBC Nightly News and the CBS Evening News have recently played Daily Show clips.
What kind of response has Reality Show sparked from TV news personalities?
Several have told me they thought it was fair and got most of the nuances right. Several more have told me they couldn’t put it down. Those who I presume weren’t crazy about it have said little or nothing.
Lastly, was there any question you were hoping I and other interviewers would ask that we didn’t ask? If so here’s your chance to ask it.
You’ve covered the waterfront.
Thanks again to Mr. Kurtz for agreeing to do this interview.